LI's Elijah Riley takes high road to success, and NFL
Elijah Riley was living in the moment. He sat on the team bus and peered out the window to reflect on his journey.
The 10-minute bus ride from the team hotel to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh felt as if it took a lifetime. Riley relished every second.
He remembered the shorter bus rides while starring for Newfield High School and earning the 54th Carl A. Hansen Award, presented to Suffolk’s top player.
And he looked back on the bus rides during the days when he captained the Army football team.
The flashbacks took him on the path toward where he finds himself now.
On this particular bus ride last Sunday, Riley was on his way to fulfilling his lifelong dream. He was about to take the field with his Philadelphia Eagles teammates against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His childhood goal of playing in the NFL was about to be realized.
"I was overcome with emotion. The ride was so meaningful," he said. "I thought about my parents, all my coaches and teammates and all the hard work. You begin to appreciate all the little things that helped put you in such an incredibly blessed position. It’s awesome and overwhelming all at once, so you soak it all in and take nothing for granted."
Riley, wearing number 48, played on all special teams, 14 plays in all, as Philadelphia fell to Pittsburgh, 38-29.
"I was getting really anxious Saturday night and had trouble getting to sleep because I was so amped," he said. "I had to chill before the bus ride to the stadium. It was my first time out for pregame and I was getting a feel for how game day works. I was visualizing plays I wanted to make. But I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself. I didn’t want pregame to be the highlight of my day. I wanted to have an impact on the game. I wanted to make a play. And I had to keep reminding myself that no matter what level I’m at, it’s still the game of football."
Riley said he listened to some R&B music to relax before the game. Just before team warm-ups, he put his more hard-core play list on. He added that 20 minutes before kickoff, the adrenaline really kicked in. He strapped on his helmet and walked down the tunnel.
"My NFL entrance . . . and it’s me and it’s the coolest thing ever," he said.
Every part of the childhood dream was coming true, with the exception of running out of the tunnel into a roaring stadium filled to capacity. Not in 2020.
"When we walked down the tunnel into the stadium, it really hit me," Riley said. "This was it — my childhood dream. We had about 5,000 fans there as it was the first week the state of Pennsylvania allowed some fans into the stadium. They were loud enough and better than the steady crowd noise that’s pumped into stadiums."
Riley, 22, led Newfield to the 2015 Long Island Class II title and was named Newsday’s Player of the Year.
"Elijah was destined to be a pro," said Newfield football coach Joe Piccininni, who led the Wolverines to two LI Class II titles in 13 years. "He had all the qualities and the work ethic it takes to get there. He had the cerebral part of the game down. He combined the study of film with a natural athletic ability and carried himself well on and off the field. He was a perfect fit for West Point. This is the tip of the iceberg of what he can accomplish as a person and a player."
Riley’s road to his debut at Heinz Field was anything but easy.
The 5-11, 214-pound defensive back from Port Jefferson is among a small group of players to make it from West Point to the NFL. Playing for a military academy doesn’t lead to much attention from NFL scouts. He also was expected to fulfill his military obligations after graduation.
Under the existing Defense Department rules, he was required to serve at least two years in the active-duty Army before being considered for a waiver to pursue a professional sports career. But Riley took advantage of an opportunity to speak with President Donald Trump in an event with the Army football team in May 2019 when Trump presented the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the 2018 season.
"I asked President Trump if there could be a waiver to play pro ball right after graduation and basically put our military commitment on hold," Riley said. "And we could fulfill that obligation after a pro career."
Riley said the question caught Trump off guard and that he was unsure how the president would react at first.
"He was surprised but regrouped quickly," Riley said.
In June 2019, Trump directed the Pentagon to create a new policy that would allow the direct transition from the academies to professional sports.
Five months later, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper signed a memo with new guidelines that allow academy graduates to either delay their military obligation or repay the cost of their education.
"The waiver opened the door to play professionally right after graduation," Riley said. "I just wanted the chance."
Riley had another critical hurdle — COVID-19. Because his Pro Day workout on March 24 was canceled, he had to settle for displaying his skill set to the 32 NFL teams through his previous play on tape. "There were a few hurdles," Riley said. "But if you want something bad enough . . . you figure out how to go get it."
Riley, who had totaled 201 tackles (the most by any academy defensive back), seven interceptions and 28 pass breakups in the past four years, was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the best DB in college football.
"I’m not surprised he earned the opportunity," Newfield assistant coach Eric Joyner said. "Elijah is driven in every way. His leadership qualities earned him the captainship at Newfield and West Point. He’s a superior open- field tackler and his best attribute is he has the knack for being in the right spot at the right time."
"When you coach on Long Island for a number of years, there are very few kids that jump off the screen when watching film," East Islip coach Sal J. Ciampi said. "Riley was unique. He looked different — like he was moving at a different speed than the other players. He had the ‘uh-oh effect’ on film."
Ciampi said Riley also was impressive off the field. "I’ll never forget the speech he gave at the Hansen Award dinner," he said. "I was never more impressed. But then you understand why he went to West Point. He’s all about family and honor and commitment. He gets it far beyond just football. He’s a role model, someone I’d like my son to emulate."
Riley will line up against the Baltimore Ravens at Lincoln Financial Field at 1 p.m. Sunday. He’ll start on special teams and may get into the secondary against quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning NFL MVP.
"The difference between the NFL and college is how fast the big guys move," Riley said. "They’re incredibly athletic, and some of them are moving like they’re in my body."
Riley said football started at a young age with the Central Suffolk Ravens and the PAL Centereach Cougars and just dreaming big.
"There were always challenges," he said. "And that’s where perseverance requires passion. And that I have because I love football."
Ah, the life of Riley!